This is about the Special Forces Medic: the Sergeant in the Green Beret who often is called to perform as the sole provider of medical, dental and hygienic training support and treatment to the men of his team and even hundreds of irregular fighters, dependents and civilians alike when serving on an operational mission.
FM 31-21, Guerrilla Warfare and Special Forces Operations, published in September 1961, shows in Figure 8, Operational Detachment A, two medical specialists are authorized in a standard A Team, one as an E-7 and the other an E-6. What it doesn’t tell the reader is that an operational A Team engaged in counter-insurgency operations may find itself in a position of providing on the ground medical support to a large number of people that is over and above the to-be-expected treatment of combat casualties and routine medical needs of the fighting force itself. I commanded US Army Special Forces team A-424 in 1966 with a counter-insurgency mission that saw my two NCO medical specialists responsible for our men, the Vietnamese Special Forces in our counterpart A Team and the 792 men who served in our six companies of civilian irregular fighters. To stretch this limited resource even further, as you will discover in my book Expendable Elite, these same two Sergeants did their utmost each day to treat 100+ local civilians in medical patrol situations out in the many and widespread hamlets of An Phu District, a delta area with 30 kilometers of common border with Cambodia.. A total of 64,000 local villagers of the Buddhist Hoa Hao Sect and slightly less than 200 Chams depended on my men for their medical and dental emergencies particularly, along with those local men and women whom they had trained as medics, nurses and midwives. It was our goal not to leave too much of a gap in this type of support available to the people when the time came for us to leave the area. The Special Forces medics were perhaps the greatest good will “ambassadors” to ever enter our area in South Vietnam. It was because they cared and proved it by being there for the people 24 hours a day, that they were loved by the people and helped more than anyone else on our A Team to develop loyalty amongst them.
Most people are ignorant of the fact that few doctors want any part of the Special Forces organization as a whole and NONE that I’ve ever met wanted to be out with the operational A Teams where the greatest need exists. Our situation, with regard to the people of An Phu District, was exacerbated by the fact that there were no civilian doctors in the entire district. If you hunger for more detailed knowledge of what our two medics did to care for the people of An Phu, watch for Expendable Elite in your bookstore or library. For a sneak preview, an opportunity to preorder an autographed copy, or a way to contact the author, click on Coming soon, Discussion Forum or Contact site.
One of the unconventional aspects of training for the Special Forces medics that helps to prepare the individual medical specialist to function well without a doctor is conducted in a rather unique facility at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
In May 1988 I had the opportunity to record on audio tape a description of the Dog Lab provided me by a quarter-century veteran of medical specialist service in the US Army’s Special Forces who, for fear of retribution, asked to remain anonymous.
In his words, this field-tested and combat proven medical specialist told me, “Dog lab was a little place located in the old hospital complex at Fort Bragg. The SF medics that were attending dog lab lived in two nearby wards. With the new [post] hospital open, the mostly vacant wooden buildings of the old facility, away from the mainstream traffic now, were well suited for conducting a ‘covert‘ course.
“There were two classes going through at one time. The Dog Lab consisted of two months. The first month was the academic phase, the second the surgical phase. It was very prestigious to make it through Dog Lab. We started with 61 people and graduated 11 of the original class. It was a tough and demanding course.
“The academic phase consisted of differential diagnosis, study of different diseases. We had a lot of homework at night, a lot of written and oral exams. Lab work, dental procedures, and pharmacology were all involved.
“The first week in school you got a dog. The funny part about it was they had three pens with 50 to 100 dogs, all trying to bark but not a sound coming from them! Dogs received by the Army contracted kennel would be anesthetized, its vocal cords cauterized and delivered to the Dog Lab mute. Of course the sound of a hundred barking dogs would have alerted the SPCS, an especially worrisome thought to the Special Warfare Center. It was a secret place and they wanted to keep it that way. We were told our dogs were rejects from universities with medical programs; we had to take the ones they wouldn’t take. Clemson and the University of North Carolina were mentioned as sources for rejects.
“We had to pick our own dog, identify it just like a human: color of eyes, hair, build, etcetera. We recorded the dog’s temperature, respiration, and all that sort of stuff. We visited and cared for our dogs daily, maintaining a complete record of all findings.
“During the surgical phase each student would rotate between the various tasks: surgeon, assistant surgeon, anesthesiologist, scrub technician, operating room circulator; sometimes detailed outside, sometimes in the anatomical surgical room, sometimes in Central Materiel Supply where you learned how to sterilize and pack instruments. To graduate you had to be familiar with each job.
“The sad part about the whole thing was when the time came for you to learn the surgeon’s role. You knew that’s when you would have to shoot your dog. Inside the place, behind a heavy steel door was a soundproof bunker, like a big tank, with a table you secured your dog to. First, you put it down with sodium penethol and ether. They had a Russian-made bolt action rifle all bore-sighted and loaded for you. I had to close my eyes when I pulled the trigger, it had to be done to get a wound to work on, but I sure didn’t like doing it.
“Then you would bring it into the operating room, the anesthesiologist would intubate the dog using a drip technique to keep it down. As the surgeon I would then debreed (cut away damaged tissue) the wound, close off all the bleeders and all, and await inspection by the instructor and the veterinarian. Then you would close it up, pack it up real good, take your patient to the recovery room and wait until it was time to bring your dog back to the pen, to nurse it back to health.
“The last phase was the anatomical phase, when you would bring in your dog, cut it open, and learn all about its innards. You learn how the heart runs, the blood circulates, the kidney and other organs function and where they are located. That was the most traumatic time of the course because your dog died while serving as a warm cadaver in your hands, an object to dissect and study. At the time we all felt callous and sad, but thought it was important and necessary. Now, after I’ve had 25 years to reflect, I feel much remorse. Those poor animals really suffered, couldn’t even cry out with the pain they felt. They trusted their masters only to die in their hands and by their hands. That’s the really sad part and the part I can’t forget.”